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Mark Trahant: Indian Country feels the pain of the sequester

Filed Under: Opinion | Politics
More on: barack obama, bia, doi, economy, mark trahant, republicans, sequestration

Indian Country has already been hit hard by the sequester.

Lacey Horn, treasurer of the Cherokee Nation, recently told National Public Radio that the tribe had been planning for the impact for some time with cost-cutting measures, a hiring freeze for all non-essential positions, and canceled training and travel. “We’re delaying or foregoing any capital acquisitions, both large and small. And we're looking at our encumbrances to see if there's any changes in scope or quantity that we can make and strictly enforce the employee overtime.”

Horn’s goal is to try and absorb the sequester “to the greatest extent possible before we start making reductions in jobs and services.”

This is exactly what a tribal government should be doing. Looking for ways to “absorb” the cuts with as little impact as possible on direct services or jobs.

But can tribes do that over and over for the next decade? The Budget Control Act, the law that governs the sequester, is a ten-year austerity effort. As the Bipartisan Policy Center describes the law: “Sequestration’s effect will be akin to that of a slow motion train wreck ... the ramifications will steadily worsen as time passes.”

The Congressional Budget Office reported that the president’s budget would “lower the caps for 2017 through 2021 on discretionary spending that were originally set by the Budget Control Act and extend those caps through 2023. However, much of that lower spending would be offset by eliminating the automatic spending reductions that have occurred or are scheduled to occur under current law from 2013 through 2021. In total, those changes would lead to discretionary outlays that are 6 percent lower in 2016 than they were in 2012 but that would grow later in the decade; as a percentage of GDP, such outlays would fall from 8.3 percent in 2012 to 5.0 percent in 2023, 0.5 percentage points lower than the amount in CBO’s baseline and the lowest level in at least the past 50 years.”

Think about the last part of that sentence. The president’s budget would lift some of the hard spending caps under the Budget Control Act, but even then federal spending for domestic programs would be at the lowest level since President Kennedy’s time. And, as I have written before, the president’s budget represents a decent outcome. The president’s budget, according to CBO, would trim federal deficits by $1.1 trillion over the coming decade. Not a bad outcome. But the president’s budget would require a “yes” vote from both the House and the Senate. That’s not going to happen.

In the weeks to come, the House Appropriations Committee will move next year’s spending bills through that body. Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, supports an increase in Defense spending -- at the expense of domestic programs, such as those that benefit Indian Country. The Hill newspaper said: “The House Appropriations Committee outline — known in budget parlance as 302b allocations — makes clear that the heaviest cuts will fall on health, education, jobs programs, foreign aid and environmental programs.”

Under Rogers’ plan the Interior Department, for example, would get hit with cuts at 16 percent below the current sequester. (That budget line includes both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.)

If the president’s budget doesn’t stand a chance of becoming law, then neither does Rogers’ budget. But it does show how deep the divide in Congress is and why it’s getting wider. It will be impossible without an election or two to restore budgets beyond austerity (despite the growing evidence of the economic damage caused by spending cuts).

What this means for Indian Country is that the most likely outcome of the budget fight is another temporary budget, or a Continuing Resolution, along the lines of the current sequester. The bottom line is a budget outcome that steadily worsens as time passes.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at:

More from Mark Trahant:
Mark Trahant: Republicans put target on Indian health care (5/13)
Mark Trahant: Indian Country left behind as jobs evaporate (5/6)
Mark Trahant: Congress acts quickly to fix the wrong problem (4/29)
Mark Trahant: Termination and austerity born of same ideology (4/22)

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